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The Problem of Evil and Morality, a Humanist Answer, Part 2 April 20, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
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From Part 1:

So back the xians come, inevitably, with something like this: ‘Well, you can’t explain it either, smarty-pants!  And anyway, without god and the bible we woudn’t have morality at all.  We’d all be running aroung killing everybody, so you’d better be grateful there’s a god!”

So how does a Humanist explain the presence of Evil in the world?  And how to explain the existence of morality?  My answer covers both of these isues. 

First – as to all the natural disasters, etc.  The absence of any benevolent god covers this one.  The universe simply does not care about us.  This is actually really comforting!  When something bad happens, there is no reason to agonize about what one might have done to “deserve it”.   Crap happens, and it happens randomly to the good and the bad alike.  Nobody deserves a tsunami or a tornado or Alzheimers.  These things just happen, and it’s nothing personal.  (Of course, there are some things that happen that people do bring on themselves, by deliberately putting themselves in harm’s way.  If someone has lung cancer from smoking, or loses their house to a hurricane because they built it on a barrier island, it is largely their fault.  But it’s not some divine retribution, or bad karma, it’s just playing the odds and losing.)

So, why do people sometimes treat each other very badly, and why are people, for the most part, not running around like homicidal maniacs? 

First, a side note.  It should be abundantly obvious to anyone who is paying attention, and whose life is not ruled by confirmation bias, that the origin of “moral” behavior is not the christianity, the bible, or any particular religion.  Social animals have behavior codes, and for the brainier ones this is not instinctual but learned.  Read what Jane Goodall writes about chimpanzees, and you can see this.  Ancient peoples had “moral” codes, and some of those were much superior to the ancient Hebrew patriarchal nonsense that appears in the OT.  And many of the most stable, peaceful, healthy and happy countries in the world today are also some of the least religious.  Check out Sweden, for instance.  So the claims of morality originating from some god or some book are obviously invalid.

So here is my personal explanation for the origin of both “evil” and “morality”: 

 Human beings are the product of evolution.  This means that we are the desendants of the winners in the fight for survival that has been going on since the origin of life.  We are scrappy survivors.  We  each must agressively pursue our own self-interests, as must all other organisms, because if we don’t do this, we don’t survive or reproduce.

AND – we have evolved to be social animals.  That’s our niche, our survival strategy.  Each of us is incredibly dependent on the other members of our community.  So we each must also aggresively pursue the welfare of our social group if we are to survive and reproduce.

So, it’s a balancing act.  To be successful as a human being, it’s necessary to balance individual interests against social interests.  And it’s necessary to be aware of what that “social group” is, and who it includes.  There is no one perfect balance, because the right mix depends on the situation at the time.  Sometimes the best survival strategy is complete cooperation with your society, and sometimes it’s not.

And sometimes people get that balance really wrong.   Whether it’s putting your own interests too far ahead of the interests of those you depend on, or whether it’s blind obedience to a social group that has been misled by a destructive ideology, there are ample opportunities to get it really wrong, and either one can cause human suffering. 

Human morality is a set of rules that we have developed over thousands of years that are practical for helping us achieve that balance.  Mostly, these rules concern how to best get along with other people, how to rein in individual interests, because we make these rules as a social group for the smooth functioning of the social group.  These rules have changed over the years, but in general we keep the rules that work, and eventually chuck out the rules that don’t. Rules like “don’t kill each other” and “don’t steal stuff” have likely been around  longer than homo sapiens has.  And those basic rules are common to all successful cultures around the world, not just the ones with an Abrahamic religion.

Religion hijacks the basic moral rules that all cultures use, adds some additional arbitrary rules for distinguishing “us” from “them”, and then takes credit for all of morality.  As a result we get comments like “Well without the bible, we’d all just be totally amoral!  I’d just be going around killing everybody if not for Jeeesus!”  To the people that say that I say “Well, if you genuinely believe that, I think you should stay with your religion.  Please!”   For everybody else, before you act think about what effect your actions will have on you, what effect they will have on those in your immediate social group, and what effect they will have on your community, given that our whole world is now one enormous  interconnected community.  And remember that there is no divine fix or forgiveness coming to clean up your mistakes, and you only get one chance at life, so please try really hard not to screw it up.

That’s my personal thoughts.  Subject, of course, to modification over time as I run into new ideas and new evidence.

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Comments»

1. Grundy - April 20, 2012

Nice post. I never even thought about explaining evil from an secualr POV. I didn’t think it needed explaining. Like you said, people have a balancing, we’ve always had it. We have survival of the fittest individually and survival of the altruistic in groups.

And natural evil already has explanations within the natural world. Tectonic plates move to cause earthquakes. We understand weather patterns and volcanoes. I can see natural disasters as gods throwing lightning around in the past, but we know better today.

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